On Saving Private Ryan


Wayne Allensworth, in his poignant and beautifully written review of Saving Private Ryan ("The Face of Battle," January), focuses on what is right with the film. However, I find much that is wrong, and, for me, the wrong outweighs the right. Nonetheless, Steven Spielberg makes an important contribution to the making of war movies by realistically portraying the blood, gore, death, and horror that is an inescapable consequence of battle. His depiction of the landing at Omaha Beach ought to remind all Americans that we should not put our boys in harm's way without our national security at stake and without a well-defined mission. We had such in World War II. We have not had such since.

Saving Private Ryan has great cinematography, action direction, and special effects. These are Spielberg's strengths—and he might be the best in the business at them. Yet his weaknesses are many, and they may all be traced back to one: He does not seem to understand men or what it means to be a man. He certainly does not understand the American man of past generations.

Saving Private Ryan opens with an old man—we learn later that he is Pvt. Ryan—not walking but shuffling to the American cemetery at Normandy. He is bent, broken, and pathetic. His wife, children, and grandchildren walk behind him with exaggerated expressions on their faces, at once patronizing, pained, and inane. His face reveals no pride, strength, courage, resoluteness, or gumption; only weakness, fear, and guilt—Spielberg's American man. The movie ends with the old man at the gravesite of Capt. Miller. The group of children and grandchildren stand in the background, still mugging for the camera. The old man asks his wife, "Tell me I've lived a good life. Have I been a good man?" My wife leans toward me and whispers, "Oh, puke."

After loathing Spielberg for his portrayal of the old man, I found myself admiring Spielberg for his depiction of the landing at Omaha. The realism is astounding, although there seems to be a dearth of officers and NCOs issuing orders, organizing troops, and leading men. Spielberg allows his troops to lie on the beach exposed to withering fire and be slaughtered.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Ryan looks out the kitchen window of her farmhouse and sees a car with U.S. Army insignia approaching. She walks out the door and then lowers herself onto the porch and half sits and half sprawls—Spielberg's American woman. This is not the pioneer farm woman who helped conquer the frontier. This is not the mother or grandmother of America of the 1940's. Those women were as brave and as strong as the sons they reared, and they would not dare show emotion or weakness in front of strangers. This is not the real life Mrs. Sullivan who lost all five of her sons in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. In imitation of John Ford in The Searchers, Spielberg shoots the scene from inside the farmhouse, looking through the front doorway. Ford never would have had Dorothy Jordan sprawled on the porch.

Once off the beach, Capt. Miller is chosen to lead the search for Pvt. Ryan. However, the 101st Airborne, Ryan's outfit, landed behind Utah Beach. Why, then, use Capt. Miller, who is a company commander of Army Rangers at Omaha Beach? Moreover, why pull a company commander out of the line to conduct the search? Dramatic license, I suppose, and suspending disbelief is required at some point in most movies, but this movie asks the viewer to suspend disbelief again and again and again.

Capt. Miller is a reluctant warrior who would rather be back home teaching English to his high school class. How and why, then, did he become a captain of the Rangers—the army's elite outfit? The same applies in spades to the men he selects from his company for the mission. They look and act like flotsam recruited from the stockade. Chain of command and discipline are foreign to them. This bunch is going to take on the German army?

Off they go, searching behind enemy lines for Pvt. Ryan. They stroll rather than walk. They are bunched tightly. No one walks point or drag, or on the flanks. They chatter and whine. They debate the merits of the mission—and everything else—with their captain. This isn't war: It's a walk in the park.

They chew out a member of the squad, Cpl. Upham, for saluting Capt. Miller. The corporal, recruited from headquarters company because of his language skills, has no combat experience and does not understand that saluting an officer in the field is a good way to get that officer killed. Spielberg got that right, but at the same time he has Miller wearing a helmet with bright white captain's bars painted on it!

Our Rangers arrive at a village and make contact with elements of the 101st Airborne. The fat-faced sergeant who greets them looks like a roly-poly 40-year-old who has spent the war as a cook in some rear area, not as a member of Brig. Gen. James "Jumping Jim" Gavin's vaunted paratroopers. One of the Rangers, while disobeying orders, is shot by a German sniper. Capt. Miller sends his own sniper into action, a southern boy named Jackson. The resulting sniper duel was taken from a real event, but the war w as Vietnam, not World War II. When Marine sniper Carlos Hathcock, a good ol' boy from Arkansas, saw a flash from the sun's reflection on the lens of a NVA sniper's scope, Hathcock fired at the point of light. The round from his Winchester Model 70 went right through the enemy sniper's scope, into his eye, and out the back of his head. Jackson performs the same trick on his German rival. There is a problem with Spielberg's version, however. The action takes place during a driving rainstorm. The sky is black. There is no sun.

We are soon subjected to the spectacle of the sole Jewish soldier in the movie, Pvt. Mellish, loudly and obnoxiously taunting German prisoners. He screams that he is Juden. Just in case this is too subtle for moviegoers, Spielberg has him wave a Star of David at the prisoners. Mellish looks like a cowardly schoolyard loudmouth hurling insults at someone who cannot fight back. Later, when a German soldier slowly sinks a bayonet into Mellish's heart, does anyone watching the film care?

The same lack of feeling extends to most of those in the squad who die. In my circle of friends, there was general disappointment that Pvt. Reiben, an obnoxious loudmouth like Mellish, did not get greased. Reiben is regularly insubordinate and, at one point, refuses Capt. Miller's direct order on the battlefield. A ridiculous shouting match follows with Sgt. Horvath. Not only does Spielberg again have a squad of Rangers looking like misfits released from the stockade, but he has put his American man on display. Reiben and Horvath do not fight. They just shout.

The shouting match concerns a German prisoner. Should he be killed on the spot? The German turns craven and spews all sorts of nonsense, including the obligatory "F Hitler," that he thinks will ingratiate himself with the Americans. Like all his fellow Germans in the movie, he also sports a buzz cut, unlike real German soldiers in World War II. (Is this some effort at connecting German soldiers with today's skinheads?) The prisoner is Spielberg's German Everyman. Does Spielberg not understand that reducing the enemy to a cowardly caricature diminishes the American soldier? Apparently, it was not really much of a task to defeat the Krauts, after all. A movie has to make us identify with, or at least care about, its characters. If not, we remain uninvolved, and there can be no suspense. Aside from Sgt. Horvath and the sniper Jackson (and, for some, Capt. Miller and the medic), is there anyone in the squad whom we really care about?

The squad finally finds Pvt. Ryan (who inexplicably wears PFC stripes). Ryan and a couple of his buddies from the 101st have just helped save the squad by destroying a German armored car. Ryan refuses to leave his outfit, and we begin to root for him. The combined forces prepare to defend a bridgehead in the village against an anticipated tank attack. Although they have only small arms, Capt. Miller says they can use "sticky bombs." None of the Rangers or the paratroopers knows what he's talking about. They must have forgotten, because the use of sticky bombs was part of their basic training and the bomb is described in the Ranger Handbook of Field Expedient Devices. But, then, these Rangers are like no others.

Preparing his defense, Capt. Miller puts the sniper Jackson in the belfry of a church. The position is a good observation post, but no self-respecting sniper would put himself in such a vulnerable spot, especially with tanks approaching. Snipers need a position that will both support the mission and allow them an avenue of escape. Jackson becomes one big target. Worse, though, Spielberg does not have Jackson picking off the Germans at 600 yards out. No, Jackson only shoots at them when they arrive in the street directly below him —and he does it looking through a scope. A 40- foot shot at moving targets through a scope! Spielberg has the camera look through the scope and gives us the sniper's view. We see Germans running through the street with the crosshairs following them! Has Spielberg ever looked through a 4x scope at something 40 feet away? How could his vaunted technical advisors have ignored this?

Capt. Miller also establishes some rather deadly fields of fire for his own troops. He and Ryan are positioned directly behind one of their own men and will surely blow off his head when firing commences. At one point during the battle, Reiben sits on Ryan, pinning him to the ground to prevent him from fighting, evidently to protect him. However, this is the same Ryan who has been fighting heroically up to this point. I hope I missed something, because the scene is unfathomable. So, too, is Ryan curled in a ball, rocking back and forth and screaming, as the battle nears its climax.

Meanwhile, Cpl. Upham, the cowardly office pogue, freezes and fails to carry ammunition to his comrades, leaving them to be killed by Germans. However, P51 Mustangs arrive, and the Germans are put to flight or surrender. A half-dozen throw down their guns, raise their arms, and surrender to a lone American, Cpl. Upham. He recognizes one of them as the squad's former prisoner and immediately shoots him to death. Upham then strikes an heroic pose, and the camera focuses on him for several beats. Is this supposed to be the act that has redeemed the coward—the shooting of an unarmed prisoner?

A good test of a movie is whether one would see it again. Unlike To Hell and Back, Twelve O'Clock High, The Sands of Iwo Jima, Mr. Roberts, Patton, Retreat Hell, The Enemy Below, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, and a few others, Saving Private Ryan is a one-timer. In his depiction of the carnage of battle, Spielberg surpasses them all—but there it ends. His men and his Rangers are, for the most part, a sorry excuse for the real thing. A good friend, Army veteran Glenn Miley, whose decorations include the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, summed it up beautifully. After watching the movie he shook his head in disgust and said: "That was Spielberg's army. He's even taken that."

        —Roger D. McGrath
Thousand Oaks, CA


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